He plays like a cornerback, thinks like a safety, hits like a linebacker. That’s why Jalen Ramsey is the best player in this draft class.
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With the 2016 NFL draft just days away, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to finish the process of getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that as well. To that end, Doug Farrar has assembled his own Big Board, with his top 50 players.
The SI 50 uses tape study to define the best prospects in this class and explain why they’re slotted as such. We have spent the last few weeks going through 49 other high-level talents, and we've finally reached our No. 1 prospect. The top player in this draft class is above the rest because he excels in so many roles, showing a diversity of talent you just don’t see that often in the NFL.
1. Jalen Ramsey, DB, Florida State
Height: 6' 1" Weight: 209
Bio: A five-star recruit at receiver and cornerback, Ramsey chose Florida State in 2013 and became the first true freshman cornerback to start his first game for the Seminoles since some guy named Deion Sanders did it in ’85. He flipped between cornerback and free safety in his first year due to injuries, then became a hybrid safety/slot defender/linebacker (what Florida State calls the “STAR” position) in 2014. He became a full-time boundary cornerback in 2015, showing every bit of the versatility the NFL vaules so highly these days.
“I think they can see me playing whatever fits their team,” he said at the combine. “I can play where they need me to. I feel like I can work outside, in the slot or play deep. I have a lot to learn, have to study receivers, learn the defense I’m in, but I think if I put the work in, I’ll be able to move around.”
Ramsey’s college stats aren’t mind-blowing (122 solo tackles, five sacks, three interceptions, 22 passes defensed and four forced fumbles in three seasons), but they reflect the performance of a top-flight secondary player. The tape tells the whole story: Ramsey comes into the NFL as a legitimate starter right now at several defensive positions. The best way I can describe him to those who haven’t seen him is to imagine if you could go back and draft Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor at the same time ... and combine that talent into the same guy. That’s how good he can be.
Strengths: Plays press coverage as aggressively and perfectly as you can draw it up. He gets his hands on receivers and tight ends and can re-route them right out of the game. Gets his long arms on targets and will follow them through the route. Beats blocks like a linebacker at times—he plays as if he weighs 10 pounds more than he does. Played linebacker depth with linebacker responsibilities at times and wasn’t overwhelmed from a strength perspective.
As a safety, Ramsey covers the whole field with great speed and understanding of his route, peeling over to stop screens and hitches underneath. Can play free or strong safety in a two-deep shell and centerfielder in a Cover-1 or Cover-3 scheme. As an outside and slot corner, keeps his backpedal low and uncorks quickly to cover. Has the hip turn and fluidity to run with slot receivers and adjust to option routes on the fly. Adept in man and zone schemes—he can tear through routes as a base man corner, but he has the patience to hang back and work with his fellow defenders on handoffs. Raw as a blitzer, but he certainly has the speed and strength to do it.
As an outside cornerback, Ramsey isn’t going to get beaten very often from a quickness perspective. Has the straight-line speed to get legitimate pressures on blitzes. Transitions extremely well from pressing at the start of a route to pattern-matching through a receiver’s quick cuts. Can match most moves receivers put on him and would be a natural in any pattern-read scheme. Sniffs out stutter-go routes as if he’s the one running them. Will use his long arms to time deflections very well. Very tough to get past once he locks inside position to the boundary. Will dominate as a tackler in off-coverage to prevent yards after catch. Force wrap tackler who thrives in the physical facet of the game. A nightmare to deal with in contested catch situations because he can leap with anyone and is very physical in short spaces.
Weaknesses: Competitive temperament can get the best of him at times—occasionally works too hard to wrestle in blocks and doesn’t peel off in time for tackle opportunities. Stat totals are skewed by multiple dropped interceptions throughout his career. Needs to get better with his hands and focus on maximizing interception opportunities. Can get bodied out and fooled by crossing routes when in press coverage. Not always as fast on long angle routes like slants and drags; quicker receivers have been able to run past him to make catches on late-developing plays. Needs work on some of the finer elements of the boundary cornerback position if he’s put there full-time in the NFL. He must flip his hips quicker to deal with speed up the field, catch up on crossing routes and maintain his low backpedal and quick transition on every play. Needs seasoning at cornerback, but he showed a lot in one season out there.
Conclusion: Only one defensive back has ever been selected first overall: Gary Glick of Colorado State, taken with the No. 1 pick in 1956. It hasn’t happened since the merger, and given the Rams’ trade up to take a quarterback with the first pick in 2016, it’s not going to happen this year. But in a league where passing rules the day, DBs are more important than ever, and Glick’s reign alone at the top will come sooner than later. All things being equal, Jalen Ramsey should have had a shot at that first pick this year.
He plays like a cornerback, thinks like a safety, hits like a linebacker. That’s why I think he’s the best player in this draft class—he plays multiple positions at a very high level, and those positions are among the most important in the game. This isn’t a safety who can play box once in a while and move to the slot against slower receivers. This isn’t an outside cornerback who can hold his own in the slot once in a while. This is a starter-quality player at three distinct defensive positions right now. Perhaps the most exciting thing about Ramsey’s potential is what he’ll look like when he has more experience at cornerback and an NFL coaching staff to take him through his paces. The comparison below may seem like a stretch to some, especially given Woodson’s interception totals at Michigan, but if that offends you, Tyrann Mathieu is a pretty good comp as well. Either way, the team that selects Jalen Ramsey gets an elite interchangeable safety, a great slot defender and a potential shutdown cornerback, all in the same guy. Wherever he’s selected, he’s going to be a bargain for that reason alone.
Pro Comparison: Charles Woodson, Raiders/Packers, 1998-2014 (1st round, 1998, Michigan)